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Rebuking Trump on climate, the G20 proved “soft power” works

The US stood alone as the rest of the world committed to action on climate.

President Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. Trump stands at the right with flags of member states on the left.
President Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States of out the Paris climate accord was a deeply disheartening signal to the world that reducing dependence on fossil fuels threatens US dominance (a notion that is largely false). But the G20 summit this past weekend showed that the world’s richest countries are committed to dramatically reducing carbon emissions with or without America.

The climate commitments that came out of Hamburg promote carbon emissions mitigation and economic growth in line with the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. And like those two pacts, the G20 communiqué and the 19-party Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth are both legally nonbinding and essentially unenforceable. But the principles affirmed and commitments made in them will be effectively reinforced by the very same sort of “soft power” that left President Trump isolated among the world’s leaders this past weekend.

The communiqué declares the Paris Agreement “irreversible,” leaving it open for the US to reverse its decision to leave. The communiqué also reiterates the importance of developed countries providing financial assistance to developing countries to help them deal with climate change. The action plan, meanwhile, offers concrete steps for achieving the principles. It touches everything from renewable energy generation and energy efficiency to cooperation on research and finance.

Andrew Light, a professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, says what came from the G20 summit regarding climate is very strong.

“The outcome of the G20 was essentially a rebuke of the Trump administration's position on climate change in general and the Paris agreement in particular. All 19 countries other than the US solidly recommitted themselves to the Paris agreement and all of the architecture that we've built around Paris to try to create the agreement,” Light says.

Before the summit began, there were concerns that states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Indonesia might also falter in their commitment to the Paris Agreement. But they didn’t. “And I was one of the lead US negotiators in the State Department for the Paris Agreement,” Light adds, “so I was there at the table when it was being created for many years, and I was extremely happy to see such a solid recommitment to the agreement itself from all of these parties.”

Not everyone was happy with the results of the G20 summit. Before the summit, a German newspaper called a draft of the climate action plan (which was similar to the final version), “an action plan without action.” John J. Kirton, founder and co-director of the G20 Research Group, told Clean Energy Wire that future generations “will look back at all the good that Hamburg failed to do [on climate].”

Light, on the other hand, points out that one sentence in the 13-page climate action plan “in terms of climatological impact, is huge.” It is about the Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment, which phases down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons (HFCs and CFCs), dangerous man-made greenhouse gases that are commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerants.

“This is kind of an obscure thing, but it's amazingly important,” Light says. “It took us years and years to get the Montreal Protocol amended to include a phase-down of HFCs, which is probably going to avoid up to half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century, which is a big, big win. And what you've got now is all of these parties saying, look, we don't care what's going on in the US, we're committed to get this done, and we're going to do it.”

But Light says the most important thing coming out of Hamburg is a strong emphasis on the decoupling of emissions growth from economic growth. One of the biggest obstacles to international climate action, he says, is the historical notion that “burning fossil fuels is how we grow economies.”

The communiqué (which even the US is a party to) states: “A strong economy and a healthy planet are mutually reinforcing. We recognise the opportunities for innovation, sustainable growth, competitiveness, and job creation of increased investment into sustainable energy sources and clean energy technologies and infrastructure.” The action plan sets goals to review and eventually phase out fossil fuel subsidies and to transform to “affordable, reliable, sustainable and low greenhouse gas emission energy systems as soon as feasible.”

The action plan also contains bold new language on financial arrangements. For example, the 19 states pledged to “strive to create an enabling environment that is conducive to making public and private investments consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement as well as with the national sustainable development priorities and economic growth.” This is important, Light says, because “these are the countries that are the most important when you look at the votes in the big multilateral development banks around the world.”

Regarding the nonbinding nature of agreements like these, Light is confident that the example set by President Trump’s isolation as his stances on climate and trade drew the ire of other leaders this past weekend will reinforce the power of international peer pressure in keeping members accountable: “You're going to be an outlier in the global community and you're not going to be able to get the other things you want in the global community by reneging on your commitments.”

As Vox’s David Roberts wrote at the time of the announcement, Trump’s reasoning for withdrawal flies in the face of reality, and a recent analysis suggests that renewable energy is becoming so cheap that the US may meet its Paris commitments anyway. When all is said and done, pulling out from Paris, Trump’s mostly symbolic gesture to his base, will surely not be worth the undermining of America’s international standing.